We are at that stage in the election campaign where nerves are getting frayed, people are getting testy, and sharp lines are being drawn. The question “Which side are you on?” in the form of “Who are you going to vote for?” is being posed with greater frequency and sharpness, and whips are being cracked to bring people into line. One of the things that puzzles me is the way partisans of one major party or the other react when other people say they will not vote for their preferred candidate. The most venom is directed against those who people think should vote with them but say they are going to vote for someone else.
Take that case of Conor Friedersdorf, who is a columnist for The Atlantic who wrote recently that he could not bring himself to vote for Barack Obama and gave the reasons why.
Tell certain liberals and progressives that you can’t bring yourself to vote for a candidate who opposes gay rights, or who doesn’t believe in Darwinian evolution, and they’ll nod along. Say that you’d never vote for a politician caught using the ‘n’-word, even if you agreed with him on more policy issues than his opponent, and the vast majority of left-leaning Americans would understand. But these same people cannot conceive of how anyone can discern Mitt Romney’s flaws, which I’ve chronicled in the course of the campaign, and still not vote for Obama.
Don’t they see that Obama’s transgressions are worse than any I’ve mentioned?
I don’t see how anyone who confronts Obama’s record with clear eyes can enthusiastically support him. I do understand how they might concluded that he is the lesser of two evils, and back him reluctantly, but I’d have thought more people on the left would regard a sustained assault on civil liberties and the ongoing, needless killing of innocent kids as deal-breakers.
He lists the things that the US government has done under Bush and then Obama that he finds abhorrent.
We started spying without warrants on our own citizens.
We detain indefinitely without trial or public presentation of evidence.
We continue drone strikes knowing they’ll kill innocents, and without knowing that they’ll make us safer.
He concludes that because of all this, he will vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.
I thought that it was a thoughtful article about arriving at a difficult decision by someone who has always had libertarian leanings and his decision did not surprise me. But the folks at Balloon-Juice reacted with fury (see here and here) as if he had advocated child sacrifice or voting for the Nazis, accusing him of being a secret supporter of the most extreme right-wing interests, rather than treat him as someone who is an ally on almost all the issues they care about.
The problem is that each one of us has our own list of the things we value. Sometimes the lists differ quite sharply and so people vote differently based on that. For example, someone who thinks that tax cuts for even the wealthy are a good thing will clearly not vote for Obama, while someone who thinks that same-sex couples should have the right to marry will clearly not vote for Romney. But even when the lists are very similar, no candidate will fit all our requirements so we end up needing to have some decision rule and each of us has our own private one.
Oddly enough, most people do not get that angry with people with whom they disagree wildly. In such cases, they tend to be resigned and write off those on the other side of major issues as hopeless and not worth engaging with, unless they are close family or in the same social circles where one cannot avoid contact. The real anger is directed at those who pretty much agree on the same list of things they value but differ on the decision rules used when it comes to voting. And so we have this phenomenon of the angriest words being exchanged in intra-ideology political fighting, with epithets like RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) being hurled by other members of their own party, rarely by those of the opposing party.
This is why Friedersdorf and similar people are being reviled by some on the left-liberal spectrum as if they are somehow traitors and do not care about the poor or gay rights. This is unfair. They actually care about almost exactly the same things as their critics. One may disagree with how they weight their concerns and arrive at their final judgment but surely we should be able to see that they are allies in the broad fight for social justice and change
I recall the time when Dennis Kucinich was running for president in 2004 and was clearly the most progressive candidate in the race. At that time he was not pro-choice and the columnist for The Nation Katha Pollitt said that that fact alone, in her mind, disqualified him from consideration, even though she likely agreed with him on almost everything else. And she had every right to think that way and it would have been absurd to assert that because she rejected Kucinich on that one issue, she did not care about all the other progressive stances he took, such as ending Bush’s wars abroad or on the poor at home.
This is less likely to happen if we had a preferential voting system, where one ranks the candidates in order of preference. In such systems, the first preferences of each voters are first tallied. Then after the votes are counted, the votes of the candidate with the lowest total are re-allocated according to their second preferences. The votes of the candidate with the new lowest total are again re-allocated, and so on, until we have a winner. It is actually a very simple system.
The oligarchy hates that system because it would give people a better way of expressing their true preferences, and thus would exert pressure on the two major parties to listen to those views. They much prefer the present situation where voters are forced to choose between voting for one of the two major parties as ‘the lesser of two evils’ or vote for someone who won’t win and risk the greater of the two evils winning. This way the two parties can bribe us with a few issues we care about (gay rights, a better social safety net, abortion rights) while ignoring us on other issues that we also care about (such as war, civil liberties, human rights).
But since we are stuck with the system we have, we should not be suckered into making the system worse by reacting with fury at those who vote differently for specific candidates. We have to get used to the idea that it is the issues that matter and form shifting coalitions based on them. We should avoid the trap of reacting so harshly against those with whom we disagree with on some issues, or who vote a different way, that it makes it harder for us to join forces with them later on other issues on which we agree.